by Brad Hama
Once the temperatures around town begin to drop and it feels like there’s more cloud than sunshine, people’s thoughts tend to wander to warmer climes. For North Americans, typical locations tend to be Mexico, Hawaii or the Caribbean. In my quest to become a Certified Sandals Specialist, I had the opportunity to experience the Sandals resorts in Jamaica. While the group visited every resort, we stayed in four: Sandals Negril, Sandals Whitehouse, Sandals Montego Bay and in Ocho Rios, Sandals Grande Riviera. All were wonderful and each had its own highlights and I certainly had my favourites. Although, I don’t think you could go wrong with choosing any of them.
From Vancouver, the best way to get down to Jamaica was through Toronto. We took the red-eye flight and made sure to take advantage of the Maple Leaf Lounge at the Toronto airport. If you fly with West Jet, you can ask for a lounge coupon and get a discount. It’s approximately $26 with the discount and it comes with breakfast, a place to wash up, and a nice quiet atmosphere – a nice refreshing break before jetting off to Montego Bay.
After arriving in Montego Bay, we spent a few minutes in the Sandals Lounge. The lounge is part of the Sandals experience with a Butler and drinks on tap; the vacation starts here. Sandals includes airport transportation, and the wait in the lounge is usually minimal. In fact, I felt that I wanted to stay longer, but the air conditioned shuttles were there in a hurry.
The local Sandals resort was extremely close to the airport. If you’re not prepared, it’s a bit of a shock. When planes take off, they look like they’re coming out of the resort, and I felt like I could check in from the runway. However, with typical Jamaican style, they spun it in a way that makes it fun – whenever you see a plane take off , you wave and kiss the person next to you; and honestly, you don’t even notice the planes after being there a couple of days.
The resorts themselves have many room categories and can seem a bit complicated. Sandals is doing a ton of renovations at the moment and with the resorts so popular it’s very difficult to shut down the whole resort. They manage to work on certain sections one by one and avoid disturbing guests with construction noise. The good news for Sandals guests is that they are really gutting and refurbishing their rooms – this isn’t just a paint job. The renovations really bring Sandals to a new level of luxury. Why renovate when you can rebuild? Newly built resorts must be built away from the water, but by renovating the existing units Sandals resorts maintain their location right on the beach.
Sometimes there’s a price to pay for vicinity to the waterfront. Sandals Negril doesn’t have an elevator, for instance, but it’s literally right on the beach and with these low rise intimate resorts, I believe it’s worth it.
Most of the activities we did while in Jamaica revolved around seeing and experiencing the Sandals resorts, but we also had the opportunity to do an Island Routes tour – they’re slightly affiliated with Sandals, as it’s owned by one of the children of the Sandals CEO. We also did a Catamaran cruise and some snorkeling. The extra excursions were a lot of fun.
We also had the opportunity to check out Margaritaville, the legendary Rick’s Café, and do some local shopping. I found that the price of rum is the same price if not more expensive outside the airport as inside though. In fact, I bought some rum and it was $14 outside at the market, but $7 at the airport – and I had to lug it all around Jamaica. So you may wish to pick up those extras at the airport, or perhaps you are better at the bargaining game than I.
There are always pros and cons for any resort. The Sandals Grande Riviera resort had a great atmosphere with so many areas, food options, places to go and see, over 90 pools and 20 hot tubs (granted some are with the private villas), and firepits for couples to sit around. And then the food! Food highlights included having authentic jerk chicken, and then at Sandals Whitehouse, they had a place called Café des Paris where they served made in house pastries and crepes, ice cream, banana splits, and other desserts. Café des Paris was fabulous!
Another special moment for us was visiting a school built by the Sandals Foundation. I had a great time playing soccer with the kids, seeing the classes and reading to the children. Sandals is family owned and operated and it’s authentically Caribbean – they really give back to the community.
Part of giving back is taking care of the environment. I found Sandals is really working to be green. They never cut trees on the properties, and the trees that die, they turn into unique carvings. It helps maintain the integrity of the soil and helps add character to the resort.
The weather called for rain the whole time we were there, but don’t be discouraged if it does rain during your trip. It was sunny every day until about 3pm, then it would rain from 3 to 6pm, and it would be nice again in the evening. It was very predictable weather.
Sandals claims to have more quality inclusions than any other resorts on the planet. I found these differences in their included scuba program, their huge selection of restaurants, and in the simple details like having a choice of what type of red or white wine you would like. More inclusions should be about more choices. There are always plenty of options, so make sure you feel comfortable asking about which options are available to you. The food at Sandals is truly 24 hours – there is always someone there that will make you something fresh.
So with plenty to do and experience, the Sandals resorts in Jamaica are worth checking out for a luxurious vacation. Although Sandals tends to cater to couples more so than its sister resorts, Beaches, these resorts are for everyone.